The TV licence is an outdated concept – but the plans to replace it are even more out of touch with how we consume media.
A recent House of Lords committee proposal has suggested that replacing the current TV Licence with a council tax levy might be the most appropriate method of funding the corporation in the future. The committee looked at several options for the BBC’s future, including ad-supported, subscription, broadband levies, a ringfence on income tax, direct government funding, and a part-subscription model, but concluded that a council tax levy would be the superior option.
The committee argues that a council tax levy could be means-tested, would be relatively easy to collect, and harder to evade. They dismissed the other options for a variety of reasons—ad-supported models were unlikely to produce enough money and could impact ITV, broadband levies would be hard to means test, subscription models are insufficient for a national broadcaster, and an income-tax ringfence was considered to be politically controversial.
Even the part-subscription model, where the ‘public interest’ aspect of the BBC’s operations (eg. news and current affairs) would continue to receive public funding via some method, but the arguably unnecessary part (eg. drama/entertainment) would be gated behind a paywall was dismissed on the grounds that it presented a commercial risk, and that the public might be annoyed if they lost their favourite shows.
The BBC themselves like to point out how much people love the BBC. Currently pinned to the top of the BBC Press Office Twitter account is the breakdown of what we all get for 44p a day, and they’ve recently made quite the show of talking up their engagement levels in the BBC Annual Report. To hear the BBC tell it, that part-subscription model which would safeguard the true public interest remit of the BBC, while giving consumers greater choice over the content that doesn’t qualify as a public interest need presents no real commercial risk. So why was it so easily dismissed?
Ultimately, the Lords took the approach that most people love the BBC, want it to continue regardless, and all solutions were viewed through the lens of what was best for the BBC, rather than anyone else. People like me, who pay that 44p a day and get next-to-nothing for it, are not worthy of any consideration because we’re clearly weird outlying oddballs. Similarly, if the BBC was funded through an unavoidable council tax levy, while some of the poorest people may pay less, some people who legally do not have to pay at present will suddenly find themselves paying. Hmm… There’s something a bit wrong here, isn’t there?
One of the things that’s wrong with the BBC is that its operations are based on an outdated model. The BBC, like all PSBs, is required to provide ‘something for everyone’ – that irritating phrase that crops up in all debates regarding PSBs, and the BBC in particular. The reason it’s an irritant is because it’s fundamentally absurd. The whole idea of providing ‘something for everyone’ was problematic when the BBC originally came into existence, but in the 21st Century the flaw in the logic is all too clear. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to provide something for everyone, and none of us really need to tolerate a whole heap of shit we’re not interested in anymore.
Over the past twelve months, I have not watched a single second of BBC programming. I have engaged with the BBC News website, because I might as well, I am paying for it – but as far as TV goes, the BBC simply isn’t providing something for me.
There’s a certain cultural elitism at play with the way discourse around the BBC is framed. Supporters view it as something high-brow and upmarket and often treat American services such as Netflix and Paramount+ with the sneering pomposity of Frasier Crane in a steakhouse. Those who speak favourably for the BBC are often incapable of doing so without pointing out how poor they consider the alternatives to be, and as a result, they think everyone should contribute to it.
At this point, some people may well be heading for the comments section to point out the hypocrisy in that last paragraph. After all, I’m writing about why I don’t like the BBC and why I prefer other services, but there is a difference—I don’t expect you to pay for the shit that I like. For example, I recently watched the third series of Doom Patrol on Starzplay, which is a completely nutty show, with flying vampiric arses, horny ghosts, giant robots, a sentient street, and in the first season, a farting donkey portal. Definitely not high-brow, definitely not for everyone, but I like it.
It’s why the notion of ‘something for everyone’ fails so hard. I wouldn’t even recommend Doom Patrol – it’s that outlandish and absurd, and probably offensive to certain people, that even though it’s financially backed by heavy-hitters like HBO, it’s unlikely to have wide appeal. However, it is something for me, and thanks to all these lovely VoD services, it’s easier than ever to find that something for me. We all have different tastes, and we should be able to enjoy whatever we like without the smug righteousness of the self-appointed cultural elite telling us otherwise, and demanding we finance it as a ‘public service’.
As a full-time carer, in addition to my tedious day job, I’m at home a lot. Consequently, I watch a lot of TV. In the past twelve months, I have watched content from Prime Video, Netflix, Shudder, Arrow Films, Arrow TV, MGM, Starzplay, BFI Player, Curzon, Disney+, and Apple TV. I don’t have subscriptions to them all the time (because that would be ridiculous), but the value proposition of each individual service is multitudes higher to me than the Licence Fee – and the fact that I’m not tied to anything more than a single month’s commitment is the cherry on top.
While it’s a poor argument to compare the cost of a Netflix or Prime Video subscription to the BBC, proponents of the BBC make equally absurd arguments in support of the corporation. They’ll argue that Netflix and Amazon don’t provide 50+ radio channels, to which I’ll ask, who listens to the radio anymore?
Of course, some people do listen to the radio, but I’m not one of them. At the risk of sounding like some middle-aged curmudgeon, current popular music is of little interest to me. In fact, I was kinda born forty years old. When everyone was banging on about Blur, Oasis, and Pulp at school, I was listening to Queen, Guns n’ Roses, and Megadeth. Popular music has never really been my bag.
This month, Delain, Within Temptation, Nemesea, Amaranthe, and Epica have been dominating my Tidal plays. Somehow, I doubt these bands have racked up many hours of airtime on BBC Radio over the last twelve months. Judging by the BBC’s page for their 2-hour weekly Rock Show, they’re not even likely to be heard on there.
So why would I listen to the radio, for two hours, once a week, at a set time, when I’ve currently got Delain’s Here Come the Vultures playing on Tidal as I write this paragraph at just before 4pm? For traffic updates? My phone can do that these days. For weather reports? My phone can do that too. In fact, my phone can do everything that BBC Radio does, while also letting me listen to the music I like, rather than what everyone else apparently likes.
But, Kath, you ageist, ignorant bitch, I hear some people say – what about the pensioners? They don’t understand technology! I’m not sure why we continue to infantilise pensioners, or argue that it’s imperative they hear the latest slamming tune from Doja Cat or Ed Sheeran in-between announcements about heatwaves and accidents on the M4, but wouldn’t that be covered by the ‘public interest’ elements of the part-subscription model solution? Do we really all need to pay for Strictly Come Dancing and Mrs Brown’s Boys to keep pensioners up-to-date with what’s going on in the world?
That this argument is proposed speaks to one of the issues with the BBC, as it stands—it’s too big, and so it’s relatively easy to dishonestly conflate the necessary parts of the BBC with the completely unnecessary ones. Because the BBC provides an ‘impartial news service’ (and yes, there are debates to be had about that) along with educational programming for children and students, current affairs programming, and certain documentaries, it obviously serves the public interest.
Comparing the BBC to other public services such as the NHS is a common tactic of the pro-Licence Fee demographic. They present paying for the BBC as a societal obligation because the BBC serves the public interest, much like the NHS does.
It’s not the same thing, though. Even if you pay for private healthcare, if you’re unfortunate enough to be suffering from a medical emergency, it’s an NHS ambulance that will pick you up and take you to an NHS hospital, where NHS staff will attempt to save your life. We only need to look at the United States, where medical bills are the single largest cause of bankruptcy, to understand that private corporations simply cannot do what the NHS does.
The same applies to most public services. People liken paying for the BBC as equivalent to Road Tax or Education, but ultimately, public funding of such services is the only way to ensure that everyone can benefit from them regardless of financial status or other factors.
Television and radio are not the same thing. Private corporations can provide alternatives, some of which are more cost-effective than the BBC. Others might not be more cost-effective, but might be preferable regardless. Taken together, my streaming TV and music subscriptions cost more than the Licence Fee, but as I said earlier, I’ve not watched a single second of BBC programming in the past year because it has failed to provide ‘something’ for me, yet I’ve been forced to pay for it anyway. In truth, even if it had provided ‘something’, would that something warrant £160? I doubt it.
For the moment, let’s pretend there are no debates to be had about the impartiality of BBC News and accept that it’s a valuable public service—according to the BBC’s own annual report, if every household in the UK paid £15 a year, that would more than cover its annual budget. In fact, it would cover BBC News plus children’s programming. Make it £25 per year and it’d cover factual and educational programming too. So why are we paying more than £13 per month?
Because Radio is £475m a year even though the musical tastes and interests of many people are virtually ignored. Drama, comedy, and general entertainment account for another £500m, and you’re not going to convince me that Everything I Know About Love, This Is Going to Hurt, and Inside No. 9 are irreplaceable public services. Nor am I convinced that all BBC educational programming is truly a public service. Does flying Brian Cox to the middle of a desert every year truly enhance our understanding of the universe any further than the last time the BBC did it?
The Lords may believe that the council tax levy is the fairest way of paying for the BBC and ensuring the corporation’s future, but it’s not. Maybe I’ll get to pay a bit less, but I’ll still feel it’s a bit of a rip-off because the parts of the BBC that could be considered essential are dwarfed by the parts that simply aren’t.
If, as the BBC says, 90% of the UK population engages with the BBC on a weekly basis, where’s the harm in the 10% that doesn’t no longer having to excessively contribute to it? Are we really going to bury this super-popular corporation if we are afforded the courtesy of voting with our wallets (or cards, as is more common)? Are we going to deprive people of Eastenders and Escape to the Country because we’d prefer to watch something else, somewhere else?
I’m sure most of that remaining 10% aren’t the braindead conspiracy nuts that tend to hijack all debates on the future of the Licence Fee and would be willing to make a reasonable contribution to the actual public service element providing it was properly overseen by a truly government-independent body. Anything beyond that, however, is demanding that we all pay for someone else’s entertainment, and for many eliminates the only real way they can possibly vote with their card, by opting out of paying the Licence Fee by not watching live TV or iPlayer.
And that, I’m afraid, is bullshit.
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